Chemicals in Cosmetics

In August 2012, Johnson & Johnson, the makers of a range of brand lines of adult and baby cosmetics announced they would be reformulating their lotions, cleansers, and sundry personal care products to omit ‘chemicals of concern.’ Notably this included Johnson’s No More Tears baby shampoo, a product associated with purity and yet one that contains an array of toxins associated with negative side effects, including cancer.


The list prepared by Johnson & Johnson named chemicals that release formaldehyde and chemicals that contain dioxane. Not surprisingly, Johnson & Johnson did not take up the considerable task of reformulating its products on its own accord; rather it was pressured to do so over a number of years by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. With the support of the American Nurses Association, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Environmental Working Group, Breast Cancer Fund and others, the Campaign had put pressure on Johnson & Johnson to act responsibly, and early indications are that it has – finally – with harmful chemicals phased out and reformulated products expected in stores by 2015.


While this example represents a major step towards addressing the presence of toxins in commonly used products, the inclusion of harmful chemicals in cosmetic and beauty products is ever-present, even in an age when access to commercial ‘green’ or ‘biodegradable’ products has never been greater.


Scratch the green washed surface of many ‘natural’ cosmetic ingredients lists and you’ll find preservatives and additives that are far from organic, safe, or healthy. Pioneering companies long associated with environmental activism such as The Body Shop continue to manufacture soaps, balms etc. that contain parabens and phthalates – known carcinogens. Even more troubling is the marketing of toxin-laden products to parents of infants, as was the case for generations with No More Tears.


Why should we care? 

  • We’d love to think that high-profile campaigns by PETA, the American Human Society, and others in the 1980s and 90s against cosmetic testing on animals meant the end of this horrific practice, and an unnecessary one given the abundance of more accurate non-animal testing methods. And yet animal testing remains an industry practice, particular among companies that make heavy use of toxic chemicals, including Johnson & Johnson.
  • The environmental effects of these chemicals are significant and alarming. Just one example: derivatives of popular sunscreens have been found to cause the bleaching and death of fragile coral reefs. These chemicals, which include paraben, cinnamate, benzophenone and camphor derivatives, can trigger viruses in the algae that comprise reef-building species.
  • In children the presence of dioxins has been found to effect sexual maturation along with tooth development. Elevated levels of phthalates have been linked to compromised reproductive development in boys.
  • Parabens, which can mimic the structure of estrogen,  have been correlated with hormonal imbalances which can lead to breast cancer. Ironically many of the products sold under ubiquitous “think pink” campaigns benefitting breast cancer foundations and research contain the very ingredients that have been implicated in the growth of breast cancer tumours.


Fast Facts


  • Methylparaben, which is used as a preservative to ward off bacteria and fungi in a range of products including anti-aging beauty creams and make-up, has actually been shown to age the skin.
  • Researchers estimate that 4,000 to 6,000 metric tons of sunscreen washes off swimmers annually in oceans worldwide, and that up to 10 percent of coral reefs are threatened by sunscreen-induced bleaching. (National Geographic News, January 2008)
  • Parabens have been detected in 99 percent of breast cancer tumors tested, with 60 percent of the tumors containing five or more parabens. (Journal of Applied Toxicology, March 2012)
  • Many products labeled cruelty-free contain ingredients tested by third-party firms. These products may also contain ingredients that were tested on animals, even if the final product was not, representing a cynical ploy to reassure consumers.


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